WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Energy Department said on Monday it was replacing guards and supervisors on duty 10 days ago when three peace activists, including an 82 year-old nun, breached perimeter fences at the principal U.S. facility for storing weapons-grade enriched uranium.
The guards and supervisors work for WSI Oak Ridge, a subsidiary of the giant international private security contractor G4S, which was at the center of a dispute over security preparations at the London Olympic Games.
A federal official at the U.S. Energy Department’s Y-12 complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, had also been “temporarily re-assigned” pending the investigation, a government official said.
The U.S. government both processes and stores enriched uranium at the Y-12 complex, which a senior official had previously touted as “the Fort Knox of uranium.”
Joshua McConaha, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Energy Department branch responsible for designing and building U.S. nuclear weapons, told Reuters that the incident, which occurred during the night of July 27-28, was “not consistent with the level of professionalism and expertise we expect from our guard force.”
As a consequence, McConaha said, the agency “has taken steps to remove the leadership team and the guard forces on duty at the time, and to replace them with some of the best security experts from around our enterprise.”
He said NNSA and the Energy Department were “reviewing every aspect of our security posture and will apply the lessons learned from this incident across all of our sites and facilities.”
G4S drew criticism last month for failing to provide the number of security personnel it promised to protect the London Olympic Games, forcing the British government to deploy extra army troops.
The peace activists, 82-year old Sister Megan Rice, 63-year old Michael Walli and 57-year old Greg Boertje-Obed, cut through a number of fences to reach the outer walls of a building called the “Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Storage Facility”, the U.S. government’s main stockpile site for bomb-grade uranium.
Rice said that while the activists eventually were confronted by as many as 12 guards, “they dribbled in and out ... It was very gradual.” She added: “First the one, and he began to alert others.”
The activists hung banners and strung crime scene tape on the building, and daubed slogans on the outer walls.
They were arrested and face federal charges of “wilfully and maliciously destroying or attempting to destroy government property. Rice and Walli were released on bond. Boertje-Obed remains in custody, having waived his right to a bail hearing and legal representation.
Peter Stockton, a former Congressional investigator and security consultant for the Energy Department, said for years there had been questions about the building’s security, including whether the guards’ sight-lines were adequate.
The building was designed and built after the September 11, 2001 Al Qaeda attacks with special features to withstand possible attacks by militants.
In a video which the NNSA posted on YouTube in 2010, Jason Hatfield, billed as the “operations manager”, said: “This facility has been called the Fort Knox of uranium. Our mission is to provide safe, secure and efficient storage for highly-enriched uranium.”
He added: “I realistically feel this facility will be here for the next 100 years.”
After the intrusion, all operations at Y-12 were suspended until sometime this week. Energy Department officials said apart from the personnel changes, four new guard patrols were added to three previously operating.
The department drafted Rodney Johnson, a retired general who had been in charge of security at Pantex, an Amarillo, Texas plant where nuclear bombs are assembled, to “lead the effort to reform the security culture” at Y-12.
An official insisted on Monday that “None of the nuclear material at the site was seriously threatened in this incident,” and that the storage building remains an “incredibly secure facility.”
Additional reporting by Preston Peeden in Tennessee. Editing by Warren Strobel and David Storey